The Nth Word (Still Means Something Mean)

Disclaimer:  I’m not black.

But that’s not why I generally don’t say the N-word.  I don’t say the N-word, for the same reason I don’t walk into banks waving a water pistol, i.e., the context isn’t intimate enough to prevent everyone from reasonably assuming malicious intent.

That doesn’t mean I think the N-word should be banned.  The whole idea of free speech, rarely stated, is that people are not generally as happy or creative as possible when they’re afraid they might at any moment say something that gets them fined, imprisoned, or exiled.

That doesn’t mean I think black people should use the N-word.  The most commonly cited reason black people use the N-word:  their using it will divest the word of its negative power.  Let’s grant this excuse for a moment.  At what point will the word lose its negative power?  Are we really to believe that after the word is said for the Nth time, it will have lost its negative power, have only positive connotations?  If so, then the goal of allowing black people to use the N-word now, is to create a future, near or distant, in which everyone can say the N-word without any risk of offense.  But ask anyone who uses the word to describe people of his own race, whether he hopes for a future in which everyone calls black people by that word.

And back to the question, at what point will the word lose its negative power?  Obviously this question’s phrasing is a little disingenuous; experience tells us that the process would be gradual, stochastic, happening individual by individual–there would be no exact moment when the N-word ceases to mean something mean.  If this is the case,  what the subscribers to this theory ought to expect, is a gradual appearance of nonblack uses of the word that bear no malice.  This doesn’t mean Michael Richards gets off the hook; his famous racist rant is a textbook example of how the word still centers on negative power.   Dr. Laura’s recent outburst, in which she disparages the word’s use by black celebrities, while clearly anti-N-word, also doesn’t qualify as a non-negative use of the word.  Frankly, there aren’t many good examples of the word becoming a non-negative term for nonblacks to use to describe black people.

And that implies that the strategy isn’t working–having the word used repeatedly by black people, is not stripping it of its negative power, making it a harmless toy for anyone to play with.  So while the word should like all words remain legal, I don’t think anyone should use it outside of quotation marks, i.e., use it as opposed to mentioning it.

If one wants a word that means “black person,” there’s no lack of synonyms free of negative connotation.  Even if it were possible to divest the N-word of negative connotation, it would merely rob the language of a unique word–not rob the world of anti-black sentiments.  The N-word is useful precisely because it’s not just another synonym.  Its use signals something more than the presence of a black person–it signals the presence or memory of racism against black people.  What makes a word irreplaceable is what makes it a valuable part of the language.  And just because a word’s connotation is negative, doesn’t make its value negative.  After all, there is no movement afoot to strip the word “hate”of its negative connotation–we know that word has value, has an important and unique function.  (There is a movement afoot to make hatred a crime, but that deserves another post…)

Perhaps the problem is, when we do speak the N-word in quotes, nobody can hear us do so.  Perhaps, at the end of the day, that’s what we mean when we use the phrase, “N-word”–we mean “nigger” with quotation marks, much the same way that some devout Jews write “G-d” as a way to mention God without directly addressing God.  To do so may come across as a little childish, but then, so does using the N-word, aesthetically, regardless of one’s race or intention.

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